Thursday, March 12, 2009

Das Rheingold More Relevant than ever in a HORRIBLE Production

And now a little review:

The good news:

First, Das Rheingold is not a relic. It’s a living, relevant story with some of the greatest orchestrations in opera to date.

Here’s why the story is as important today as it was when it premiered 150 years ago.

The whole thing is about greed. More than that, it’s about people who paid for a house they couldn’t afford and when the bank comes to collect, they steal money from the little guy to pay off their mortgage and save their family, but doing so starts the beginning of the end of their time as leaders of the world.

Sound familiar!!!??? I mean rarely has Das Rheingold been as relevant as it is today. What would be radical as a design for this opera would be to dress the Rheinmadens as a big sexy TV commercial, the giants as Bank mortgage lenders, the Gods as middle class Americans in over their heads and Alberich as a regular Joe turned self-made millionaire.

Instead, we get almost indescribable crap layered on crap.

But again, the good news is the story IS relevant.

Second. More good news. We’re in good hands with Maestro Conlon. The score is a bitch and Conlon’s up for the task. For starters, keeping the horns together in the overture is no easy feat and can easily turn to mud, but he kept a pulsing translucence evoking the Rheine quite well (despite the first horn’s two flubs in the first minute) True, the Rheinmaden’s were poorly balanced in the opening scene, but I partially blame the design. More on that soon.

A few transitions were less than crisp and I personally prefer faster tempi as we go from the Niebelungen depths to the God's perch just outside of Valhalla and back again, but generally Conlon did an admirable job over the 2:45 non-stop marathon.

Other musical highlights include Morris Robinson giving a robust showing as the giant Fasolt, Gordon Hawkins lending a strong vocal performance as Alberich and Arnold Bezuyen breathing a bit of life into the production as Loge.

Arnold got the biggest round of applause, because Loge was one of the only characters neither immobilized by his costume, nor covered by a mask. But he still had to give face through caked on make-up that was a poor second to the Joker’s brilliant design in The Dark Knight. He also had to maneuver around two addition unexplained arms dangling from his body making him vaguely resemble a standing lobster with old fashioned devil ears. I mean, WHY? WHY for Godssakes? But he provided a bit of life in this otherwise passionless staging.

And now we’re already jumped into the design horrors, let's drill down:

Why was the direction and design so bad?

1) Random shit.

1. There’s a 3-foot wide multi-colored eyeball Down Right. It glows for a moment during the overture, but is never used again, though it sits there for 3 hours. Sure, Wotan lost an eye to gain his wife years back, but that’s no prescription to build a briefly glowing giant eyeball into your show. 
2. There are two poorly drawn cut outs of black and white fish downstage on both sides of the stage. On Stage Left it poorly and partially conceals the constant efforts of what I can only assume is the solid associate conductor Grant Gershon trying to keep all the singers in line with the orchestra which is not visible to most of the onstage performers. 
3. An airplane hangs over the stage the entire evening and finally moves a few feet to symbolize the passage of the gods to Valhalla in the last minute of the opera. WHY? 
4. When Alberich places his curse on the ring he is suddenly surrounded by 5 creatures who circle him. One is an 8 foot tall limping white mutant dog with red spots, three were unidentifiable, and the last was a white woman with two globes for breasts the size of her head. They prance about him during the curse and once he’s done singing, the white woman beckons him over and he fondles her breasts as they wander upstage and are lowered under the stage. Sure, that’s what I do right after I make any big curse, I fondle the spherical hooters of an alabaster mutant chick in front of the gods I just cursed. Makes perfect sense.

2) The scrim.

There's a scrim down the entire production separating the audience from the performers. This not only inhibits sound, but it's design intent was to provide a foreground of pointless, abstract, video masturbation neither pleasurable on its own aesthetic merits, not having anything to do with the opera thematically or the rest of the structure of the design in any capacity. The neon lines a thoughtless rip-off from Robert Wilson, the two-toned haze or reds and blues at first mistaken for the presence of the river Rheine, then more clearly seen as the twitching of an artist who has no idea what to do with the video after he’s committed to keeping the screen down the whole damn show. First, hire a real video artist if you don’t know what you’re doing. Second, if you think you know what you’re doing, listen up, “YOU’RE INCOMPETANT. STOP. JUST STOP NOW.” Got it? Lastly, If you’re going to separate your audience from your performers for a non-amplified opera, you better have a damn good reason – like you’re letting the audience see the artist paint an enormous version of “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. Oh, and did I mention that was only for two fantastic scenes and they had mics.

3) The Costumes
1. Half the performers had full masks shielding us not only from the singer’s facial expressions, but worse, from their voices as well. 
2. The other half of the costumes were so large, the singers couldn’t walk one step in them. This immobilized (ironically) the oh so powerful Gods. Freyer’s fix was to have dancer doubles pop out from behind the giant structures the singers stood in. The dancer doubles would then move around one another an ambiguous dumb show clarifying and amplifying nothing but confusion amongst the audience. 
3. The actual design looked like it was constructed by a group of remedial high school students. They looked like poor executions of hastily sketched drafts. The imagery neither captured a childlike exuberance, nor an unrefined “outsider art” quality. It just looked sloppy and poorly conceived. Worse, I’m sure this was intentional. Instead of looking like $32 million dollars, it looked liked third-rate summer stock.

4) The Set
1. Compare for a moment John Conklin’s spare blood red moon I his Chicago “Siegfried” to the raked 2-D globe covered with random letters, numbers and unintentionally tangled ropes and you know your high school could have done something better. Better yet compare Conklin’s Fafner dragon to Freyer’s transformation of Alberich into a dragon in this production. Freyer’s just looked silly while Conklin’s appropriate of Bunraku puppetry on a grand scale was majestic, frightening, powerful, evocative and beautiful.
2. As we listen to the grand transitions between heaven and the Niebelung underworld, we had to watch as the gods pretend to pull twisted ropes to hoist the edge of the stage up. Ooh. Aah. How glorious.
3. Some of the masks were cool, but the lighting in Niebelung was so bad you couldn’t even see them.
And now, I’m just worn out. There were so many other ill-conceived bits of both design and direction there are too numerous to list. I’ll just give one to give you an idea of the idiocy on parade. Just before Mime’s first exit, he displays his joy at his brother’s capture by wagging his butt in the audience’s face and then skipping off stage. Ah, the dignity. Sure it was a callback to Italian buffoonery. And sure, Wagner would be horrified. I don't care what Richard would think. I just know this was one more idiotic slap in the face to the audience.

If you’ve read this far and care at all about opera, please just take a moment and send a letter to Director Placido Domingo and beg LA Opera to change its course soon, or we’ll all be flying to NY to see Heppner and Voigt do LePage’s the Ring in a year, because there won’t be a Ring in LA worth seeing.


  1. Whew.

    Your passion abounds, and makes me interested. I have never been able to crack open Wagner, but perhaps it's time. Just not with this production.

  2. See the new Robert LePage production at the MET (I think it opens 2010. He's an amazing Canadian director/designer who used to be written off as avant garde. Then he did half the Cirque shows in Vegas, so now he's hot. Imagine a Cirque Ring Cycle.